Turning out Black voters seen essential for Democrats in runoffs

Voter turnout fell in past Ga. runoffs. Will the script flip this time?

Deborah Scott stood in the middle of the massive Georgia STAND-UP headquarters, nicknamed the “Movement Center,” looking and sounding more like a football coach than a veteran organizer and voting advocate.

She was sending a group of six political canvassers ― three of whom were college students participating in their first political cycle ― out into the cold Atlanta afternoon to drop off literature on the doors of potential voters. She thanked them for volunteering, made sure they had gloves, masks and hand-warmers and warned them not to get sick.

“This seems more intense and there is more pressure on us because the whole world is watching,” Scott, the organization’s executive director, told the group.

With two hotly contested U.S. Senate seats up for grabs on Jan. 5 that will determine who controls Congress’ upper chamber for the first two years of the Biden administration, Georgia is under a microscope unlike any before. And grassroots groups like Georgia STAND-UP are at the forefront of making sure voters ― particularly Black ones ― return to the polls.

Eighty-eight percent of Black voters backed Joe Biden in last month’s elections in Georgia, according to exit polls, helping deliver the Democratic presidential candidate the state’s 16 electoral votes in one of the country’s most stunning political upsets.

Democrats are keenly aware that if they have any shot of unseating incumbent Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue next month, they’ll need to convince Black voters to turn back out in a way they haven’t in decades.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Republicans have carried every statewide runoff since 1992. Those contests saw massive drop offs in voter turnout of between 43% and 91%, with voters whiter, older and more conservative than in general elections.

Jim Martin, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s last U.S. Senate runoff, attributed his 15-point loss in 2008 in no small part to his inability to rouse Black voters weeks after they helped elect Barack Obama to the White House.

Republicans are skeptical that Democrats can substantially improve — or even match — Black turnout from the general election, especially without a lightning rod like President Donald Trump on the ballot. The GOP is counting on a surge in turnout from Trump supporters who want a Republican-controlled Senate to uphold the New Yorker’s legacy.

But Democrats, riding high off Biden’s victory, insist that 2020 won’t be a repeat of 2008. They point to massive demographic changes, tightening election results and a decade-long investment in voter registration and political organizing, as well as grassroots groups like Georgia STAND-UP, Black Voters Matter and the New Georgia Project focused on registering and mobilizing voters that turn out heavily for Democrats.

“Everything that we are seeing is telling us that not only will Black voters come, but a multi-racial, multi-ethnic majority that we see in Georgia is gonna come back,” said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, which was founded by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “What we saw in November was not a fluke.”

Georgia STAND-UP occupies about 10,000 square feet in a converted warehouse in East Point. On Wednesday, it seemed like every inch of it was buzzing.

Scott said she will eventually have more than 100 people working phone banks and at least 70 people canvassing in metro Atlanta. Everybody working in the office on Wednesday was Black and most of them were women ― a racial and gender group that has long served as the Democratic Party’s backbone.

“Black mothers and grandmothers talking to Black mothers and grandmothers,” Scott said. “All politics are local and talking to them about shifting the Senate, that doesn’t sway them. We are meeting them where they are and that is a different kind of conversation.”

Margaret Rutland, who at 26 is neither a mother nor a grandmother but one of Scott’s most trusted community organizers, watches how people come in and out of the complex ready to work or looking for something to do.

“This election can be a total shift in how we govern ourselves versus how we have been governed,” Rutland said. “We are giving people their power.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The Democrats on the ballot, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, are keenly aware of the power of Black voters, whose turnout last month increased 19% above 2016 levels, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of voter data from the Secretary of State’s office. Black voters made up 30% of Georgians who cast ballots in the November election, reaching a benchmark that Democrats had long sought to achieve in the state.

The Ossoff campaign says it’s called more than 300,000 Black Georgians “to ensure they have the right information to vote” and spent seven figures on advertising on radio stations with predominantly Black audiences. In the last few weeks of the race, it plans to roll out the state’s largest ever peer-to-peer community organizing program, drafting hundreds of young Georgians, largely from the Black community, to urge their family and friends to vote.

“Energizing, empowering and protecting Black voters is our highest priority in this campaign,” Ossoff, who is white, said in a recent interview. “It’s been our highest priority all year.”

Credit: EPA

Credit: EPA

Warnock, the Black pastor of Atlanta’s historically Black Ebenezer Baptist Church, spent Thursday morning dropping several local and national radio spots as part of a multi-million dollar statewide radio investment targeting Black gospel, urban contemporary, smooth jazz and talk radio stations.

Along with bankrolling $40 million in television ads, Warnock’s campaign has also spent advertising money in Black newspapers, on direct mail campaigns and reaching out to the state’s Black colleges with paid advertising distributed to students via mailed voter guides, newspaper insertions and on-campus ads.

Republican strategist Leo Smith is doubtful the investments will pay off. He said Democrats have a problem in that many members of their base work hourly jobs with set schedules and employers who are less likely to give them time off to vote.

“The advantage goes to those people who have the luxury of leaving work when they want to,” said Smith, who is Black. “You can ask an employer to have the day off to go vote. To then go and ask them again within three months, it’s really difficult for an employer to say yes to that twice.”

Loeffler and Perdue, for their part, have yet to undertake any major targeted outreach to Black supporters during the runoff in the way Trump did ahead of the general election. Perdue received roughly 11% of the Black vote last month and Loeffler 6%, according to exit polls, compared to the 11% Trump received in Georgia.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The duo has instead focused on turning out their GOP base, which is mostly white. Since Nov. 3, Loeffler and her allies have ramped up attacks on Warnock’s sermons at Ebenezer, including past comments about police brutality and social justice.

The two Republican campaigns did not respond to requests for comment. But Abigail Sigler, a spokeswoman for the Georgia GOP, said the party is “working tirelessly to ensure all Georgians understand they have a clear choice in the January 5th election.”

Democrats believe Republicans will help do their job for them.

Ossoff points to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “blanket obstruction” when Obama was president as a galvanizing force for Black voters.

“Everybody knows that if Mitch McConnell holds the Senate he’s going to try to do to Biden and (Vice President-elect Kamala) Harris just like he tried to do to President Obama,” he said.

Another factor that could drive turnout is the history-making aspect of Warnock’s candidacy. If he wins, he’d become the Senate’s first-ever Black Democrat from the South.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Warnock has discussed that little on the trail, preferring to recount his own story growing up in public housing as one of 11 children and becoming the pastor of Ebenezer, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual home.

“I am going to do what I have spent my career doing: standing up for ordinary people,” Warnock said in an interview. “I think folks are responding and we are building the type of multi-racial coalition we need in order to win.”

Observers say Democrats can’t afford to sit back and coast off Biden’s win.

“You have to go ask people to vote and go remind them to turn out,” said Emory University’s Andra Gillespie, who directs the school’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. “If you remind people to vote, you increase their likelihood of turning out to vote, and the issue with communities of color is that they don’t report being asked as much to vote.”

But NAACP President Derrick Johnson, whose organization has more branches in Georgia than any other state, said he is seeing enough energy from Black voters that gives Georgia a chance to “make history for the second time” after the state flipped to Biden in November.

Newsroom data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.

Black voters in Georgia (numbers are rounded)

  • The number of Black voters registered to vote in Georgia increased by 14% between 2016 and 2020
  • 60% of registered Black voters, nearly 1.4 million people, turned out for the 2020 general election
  • Black turnout increased by 19% in the 2020 general election compared to 2016
  • Black voters made up 30% of the overall electorate that turned out for the November 2020 election

Source: AJC analysis of Secretary of State voter data

-Tamar Hallerman and Jennifer Peebles